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Black Friday Eve? The Story of Gray Thursday

Nov. 6, 2014
Black Friday, Shopping
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First it was stores opening at 6 a.m. Friday. Then midnight Thursday. Now stores have started introducing their Black Friday bargains right in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner – or even earlier.

Known as Gray Thursday, this early start to the holiday shopping season has had its supporters and detractors. How did this shift come about, and what does it mean for you?

Holidays Begin to Creep

Every year the sales start a little earlier. This phenomenon, known as holiday creep, isn’t unique to Black Friday and has been observed with Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter.

The shift occurred gradually. Although opening hours as early as 6 a.m. Friday were commonplace 10 years ago, it was only during the past several years that stores slowly pushed their hours back even further, as illustrated by a graph on Inlander.

In 2006, Black Friday trendsetters like Walmart, Target, Toys R Us and Best Buy opened their doors at 5 or 6 a.m. From 2007 to 2008, some stores’ openings crept earlier, to 4 a.m., but it wasn’t until 2009 that Toys R Us opened its doors at midnight on Thanksgiving. The next year Walmart followed suit, while Toys R Us moved even earlier, to 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

By 2011, a number of major retailers opened at midnight, while Toys R Us and Walmart continued to push earlier, to 8 and 9 p.m. Shoppers looking to find more traditional hours could turn to Sears and JCPenney, which opened at 4 a.m.

By 2012, Target and Sears joined Walmart and Toys R Us in opening on Thanksgiving evening. And last year, all major retailers on the list – Walmart, Target, Toys R Us, Best Buy, Sears, Macy’s, Kohl’s and JCPenney – had adopted Thursday evening to debut their sales. Toys R Us continues to push ahead of most of its competitors, opening its doors at 5 p.m. Thursday last year.

Consumers quickly adjusted to the new hours. In 2012, 10% of early-bird shoppers were in stores by 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, according to the National Retail Federation, while 28% got there by midnight and 46% by 6 a.m. the next day.

Among the record-breakers last year, Kmart opened its doors at 6 a.m. Thursday and stayed open for 41 hours straight. In previous years, the store had closed for several hours starting at 4 p.m. in order to allow its customers and employees a Thanksgiving break.

But not all stores have been in favor of the trend. Last year, Nordstrom, Trader Joe’s, Burlington Coat Factory, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, Home Depot, Menards, TJ Maxx, P.C. Richard & Son, Dillard’s and Marshalls all stayed closed on Thanksgiving. Some retailers even released statements explaining their opposition to Gray Thursday.

Why Go Gray?

For retailers, an early Black Friday means a greater opportunity for revenue, an attractive possibility as businesses scramble to meet their end-of-year goals, especially during years with a shorter holiday shopping season. (Both 2012 and 2013 were such years.) Since retailers strive to keep up with their competitors, as an increasing number of stores jump on the bandwagon, more are sure to follow.

Another factor motivating the holiday creep is the growing presence of online retailers as competitors. Since they’re always “open,” Web-based stores are better positioned to kick off their sales earlier. They don’t need the same kind of employee base that brick-and-mortar retailers require in order to support the influx of customers. In order to compete, traditional businesses extend their hours. And, for this plan to work, customers have to show interest, which they have.

On the consumer side of the equation, having early Black Friday sales means a greater opportunity for bargains, especially as opening hours now show significant variation. You can’t be in two places at once, but you can head to Best Buy on Thanksgiving night for its doorbusters and still have time to be at Nordstrom when doors open Friday.

Why Stick With Black?

Despite the benefits, not everyone has embraced Gray Thursday. The practice has been criticized for encroaching on Thanksgiving, a holiday intended to reflect gratitude and family, rather than consumerism. Critics also point out that having earlier opening hours means that fewer store employees will have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday.

Some consumers choose not to participate in order to avoid the worst of the crowds Thursday night. As a result of early sales, stores kicking off sales on Thanksgiving see a decrease in customers on Black Friday itself.

Clock Not Turning Back

A couple of years ago, Gray Thursday had barely emerged. Now it’s here to stay. So before you head out to grab the best deals of the season, make sure to fill up on some Thanksgiving lunch.

Written by Melinda Szell



 It’s Thursday image via Shutterstock